Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Mediums and the Message

The A&E Channel's program Mediums: We See Dead People left me rather dispirited. (Pun intended.) It wasn't, on the whole, inaccurate; with one possible exception, the people with extrasensory powers who populated it rang true. But the style was all too typical of TV shows like this. (What to call them? No producer would describe this as a documentry, and neither would I.)

You certainly couldn't accuse Mediums of disrespecting its subjects. As they were taped going about their work, the narration explained in factual terms what they were up to. They were allowed to speak for themselves, with none of that counterpoint that used to characterize investigative TV, where Speaker A speaks, cut to Speaker B who contradicts Speaker A, etc. Interviews with sympathetic parapsychologists supported the validity of the phenomena.

I am fully convinced of the reality of many kinds of paranormal abilities such as telepathy, psychokinesis, and clairvoyance; reasonably convinced of the survival of consciousness after the death of the body. After watching Mediums for a while, though, I began perversely to wish for a little -- dreaded word -- balance. There is no shortage of skeptics out there; surely a couple of them could have been found to question the nature of what we were witnessing on screen. Instead, the smug acceptance felt like a tipoff that the program wasn't interested in controversy or probing, merely in display.

The one serious note of intellectual slovenliness in the program was that most of the people classed as mediums were no such thing; they were what are called clairvoyants or "sensitives." (A medium communicates with what are said to be discarnate entities, including those who have passed out of earthly life. A clairvoyant can be described as receiving strong visual and emotional impressions, often from the environment or objects, of information not available to the senses.) Even if, on the evidence, Mediums wasn't aiming very high, it should have made that distinction, which is elementary in psychical research.*

It was quite absorbing to see these mediums counseling the grieved, helping the police solve missing-persons and criminal cases, and demonstrating knowledge of things they would have no ordinary way of knowing about. My own intuition, such as it is, registered genuineness except the one time my meter twitched in the "Not Sure" zone.

That exception was James van Praagh, best-selling author and, I suppose, holder of the title of the world's most famous medium. I watched him with an admitted prejudice, having read his book Talking to Heaven and found it foolish: saccharine -- pure sweetness-and-light with no complexities -- and boastful. To hear him tell it, he is never wrong, never mis-dials the Other Side. Everyone who comes to him to chat up their departed loved ones leaves with a message of love from them, alive and well in the hereafter. The cynic in me wonders whether those in spirit never continue in the hard feelings and grievances that they bore while in the body -- as, in fact, some do according to many other mediums.

Anyway, as I watched Van Praagh working the crowd, I felt once again an element of manipulation. That isn't to say that the man is a fake. For all I know, he is a very talented medium. But there is something too smooth, too easily comforting there. The afterworld isn't necessarily Heaven, and Heaven isn't Disneyland.

It was, as I mentioned, the style adopted by the director of Mediums that set my teeth on edge. Visual tricks of lens and computer were liberally made use of. Melodramatic, "spooky" music was keyed to most shots. Scenes of past events were re-enacted without labeling them as such. The concept of mediumship was illustrated with excerpts from movies like Ghost and a popular TV series.

Above all, the director had the contempt for mere words that most of them have these days: nothing could be just said, everything had to be illustrated. Fear of Talking Heads was rampant. The felt need for cutting to visuals to demonstrate spoken phrases, egregious throughout, plunged into a true pit of silliness when the narrator, describing the harsh childhood of one of the mediums, said that he came from "a family troubled by his father's drinking." Cue close-up of glass and thirsty mouth.

Someone doesn't think much of the viewing public when a television program figures that the survival of death is such a boring subject that it has to be jazzed up.

It's some kind of progress when a program like Mediums takes survival seriously and basically treats it fair-mindedly. But, to appropriate a line from the great essayist and critic Dwight Macdonald, my response to those responsible for it would be, "I agree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death to keep you from saying it in that way."

*However, to avoid the tedium of continually tagging the word with "so-called" or putting quotes around "mediums" I'll refer to all of them here as mediums.

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